Thursday, May 21, 2015

Community Mediation Bill is an Ill-Advised Response

By Professor Mary B. Culbert

This op-ed originally appeared in the Los Angeles Daily Journal.

Community mediation centers help tens of thousands of people across California each year to resolve their conflicts without court involvement - on shoestring budgets. Sara's case at our center is one example. Sara - a person with a disability - had been banned from her favorite local restaurant and was highly distraught after all attempts to resolve the matter were rebuked. She alleged discriminatory mistreatment; the restaurant alleged "stalking."

After speaking with us, the eatery's attorney agreed to mediate. We helped them discuss a series of confrontations, behaviors and reactions on all sides. The end result: ban lifted, communication and relationship repaired, and an agreed upon protocol developed if future issues arise. There were no arrests, no legal cases filed and no social service or police departments involved - classic community mediation.

Extrapolating from Los Angeles County statistics, we estimate that California's 60 community mediation centers serve 100,000 people each year, resolving 40,000 disputes - all made possible by the California Dispute Resolution Programs Act (DRPA) funding.

These efforts are in jeopardy thanks to Assembly Bill 1123, which has the potential to decimate community mediation funding, and place additional strain on our overburdened courts.

AB 1123 permits transfer of community mediation funds and funding decisions from counties to courts. Members of California's mediation community oppose it.

But those most impacted by this bill - community programs and the state agency with oversight authority - were never consulted.

Court oversight of community funds is a conflict of interest. Courts compete with community programs for funding, and are experiencing drastic funding cuts. The risk that court decision-makers would be swayed by their burgeoning caseloads is significant. Courts should not decide who gets what, nor should community mediation money make up for court funding cuts. We need data to show that community mediation services are even being provided in counties that have already turned over decision-making authority - about community mediation money - to the courts, rather than rubber stamp this practice via AB 1123.

A 1989 law review article by Mary Alice Coleman's, co-author of DRPA, describes the law's intent: "After a 10-year legislative struggle, the ...Act of now paving the way for a system of community dispute resolution programs throughout California..., revenues to fund local, non-court dispute resolution program... [and] statewide implementation... by the State ...and individual county governments." (Citations omitted).

A loss of community services would disproportionately impact disenfranchised communities with no access to the justice system due to language or financial barriers - especially minorities, persons of color, seniors, persons with disabilities and veterans.

Los Angeles County's Dispute Resolution Program reports that its DRPA funded agencies (one-fifth of the total number of DRPA funded programs statewide) are serving nearly 20,000 people a year and reaching the law's intended beneficiaries:

  • 0.7 percent self-identified their as American Indian/Native American
  • 7.9 percent self-identified as Asian/Pacific Islander
  • 24.3 percent self-identified as Black/African-American
  • 40.7 percent self-identified as Hispanic/Latino
  • 19.9 percent self-identified as White
  • 2.6 percent self-identified as Multiple Ethnicities
  • 4.0 percent self-identified as Other
  • 43.0 percent self-identified their annual income as less than or equal to $20,000
  • 29.9 percent self-identified their annual income as $20,001-$30,000
  • 11.1 percent self-identified their annual income as $30,001-$50,000
  • And 16.0 percent self-identified their annual income as greater than or equal to $50,001
DRPA money is being utilized to serve its intended beneficiaries - not the wealthy, or to pay private mediators. Any changes to DRPA should strengthen and clarify the goal of serving its intended beneficiaries - not set up a scheme that could weaken and ultimately decimate dispute resolution funds for California's indigent and disenfranchised communities.

Police, courts and community agencies will be further inundated with conflicts if AB 1123 passes. Turning a community mediation funding law in to a law that primarily funds court mediation is an ill-advised response to the court funding crisis. The loss of community peace-building services far exceeds the possible short-term relief in court caseloads.

We welcome discussions about helping the courts to fund court mediation - but not at the expense of community mediation services. There are win/win solutions, but AB 1123 is not one of them.

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